We are the sum of our reactions to good and bad things. You improve your dexterity in this by being forced to dig deep inside to retrieve your most precious, probably-untapped well of resources like willpower and psychological prowess. You can deploy these fuels when everything seems overwhelming and others appear to be suffering from a sensory overload, drowning while you float on a raft of inner strength and craft.
9 months ago, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and, like the journey an embryo takes to emerge as a new-born baby, it has taken me this long to birth the biggest lesson from the experience. You see, people think of arduous activities like mountain climbing as tasks which are solely predicated on physical fitness when, in actual fact, there is a far greater deal of dependency on the mind as opposed to the muscles. My 7 day expedition was evidence for this as Africa’s giant partially dormant volcano extended its full weight and might on my mental strength, testing it to its tether, and from this I was taught an invaluable lesson.
The experience in Kilimanjaro (and numerous other smaller occasions before and since) has taught me how to summon the inner strength needed to overcome any external obstacles which are thrown my way. Whether its freezing temperatures and exhaustion or an unexpected bill and a delayed train, the way in which we react to these external difficulties will become the sum total of our character and success. Being able to manage one’s inner factory of emotion is key, from; determination and willpower to being cool-headed and logical. It takes a skilled and learned foreman to produce the right items at the right time in the right quantity.
The reason why it took something as adventurous and dramatic as Kilimanjaro for me to have this epiphany and experience this evolution in mental machismo, is because in ordinary day-to-day life the external obstacles I face are easily overcome by simply escaping or forgetting. If I were to be hit by a big bill, or to drag the analogy into darker dimensions, a big bus; my response to the former could quite easily be to put it off or pay it and then do something pleasurable to take my mind off it. With the second example, if I was to be in an unfortunate accident I would be taken to hospital and my problem would be in somebody else’s hands while I once again seek escapism to forget. How often do you hear the phrase, “Oh just take your mind off it”? It is usually followed by an invitation to a form of escape or pleasure. This isn’t dealing with the issue at all, it’s putting them off or lathering them up with honey to disguise the dirt beneath. A treacherous task like ascending Kilimanjaro (and descending) doesn’t afford you the luxury of leaving or doing something playful to avoid the confrontation – you must savour the sweat of anguish and swing swords with the dirt. I was demanded to dig deep and face what was before me by looking inside, pushing with gritted teeth and manhandling my mind’s mechanics to accomplish the challenge. In those moments, some of which lasted hours on end, I was forced to examine my feelings and thoughts rather than flee – there was no turning back and no alternative options.
When speaking with a friend of mine who is a world class expedition leader, he confirmed my suspicions that the number one takeaway from traversing the tops of peaks is indeed that you learn to react and respond to life’s hardships more masterfully. You discover that you are equipped with far more than what meets the eye. Your toolbox is packed with hidden compartments of wisdom and know-how, laced with drive, determination and willpower. The ability to be cool, calm and collected while retrieving the right resources from your internal storage is one which becomes sharper, stronger and more accessible after you truly test your limits. We are the sum of our reactions because your internal response to external obstacles will determine how much or little damage and progress you take from life’s unpredictable projectiles.